Organised Crime

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Mr. Robertson: The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that subject. I am quoting street values, but that is only the beginning. The cost is incalculable when we take into account the medical problems, the further crime and everything else. The drugs problem is a scourge of society and we have to do what we can to tackle it. Although the Government were correcting a mistake, I was pleased that they reclassified cannabis at a higher level. The classification should never have been reduced; it sent the wrong signal to young people and I am glad that the Government reversed the decision.
The Organised Crime Task Force has reported that the drugs market is limited in Northern Ireland, and the Minister is correct to say that. The UK currently has the highest level of drug use in Europe and the second highest level of drug-related deaths. Although Northern Ireland does not yet have the same problem, we have to do all that we can to prevent drugs from taking over the Province as they have in certain areas of the UK—we would probably find it was the case in all our constituencies, if we analysed the situation. There has been an emergence of drug factories able to mass-produce drugs, which, again, we need to address. The Belfast Telegraph reported in an article last week that one drug manufacturing operation had links with triads in south-east Asia, which is another worrying trend. Such operations are not confined to the communities—bad though that is—but are becoming an international trade that threatens to draw in Northern Ireland.
Fuel laundering is a continuing problem and affects both Northern Ireland and the UK. In October 2007, a substantial oil and acid laundering plant was uncovered by the police. The estimated annual revenue loss was placed at £1.2 million, so the extent of that problem is great, too. Criminals continue to exploit the difference in excise duty between Northern Ireland and the Republic through fuel smuggling. The Minister talked about that matter at some length when we debated organised crime in Westminster Hall as long ago as 2006. At that point we agreed to disagree amicably. Although it is said that there cannot be tax harmonisation with the Republic, with regards to fuel smuggling as well as business, we must recognise that Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom with a border with another European country. To boost business, as is so desperately required, we must look at tax rates in Northern Ireland. I see no problem with having different tax rates across the UK—we have different council tax and other rates across the country, so we should not rule it out.
It has been two years since the Select Committee’s report on organised crime, and the Government have passed several pieces of legislation relating to it, but how much has the situation moved on? Is it actually regressing? We seem to be bogged down with the same old problems that existed when the paramilitaries were using money from crime to fuel their political ambitions. Although the Provisional IRA’s move away from such activity is welcome, we must not take our eye off the ball. New problems emerge as society changes, and sadly crime will always exist. People who lack social responsibility will always be out for their own gain. Unfortunately, the paramilitaries are best positioned—the Committee will understand what I mean—to exploit the opportunities that exist. In that respect, the only way to tackle organised crime—the Minister touched on this point—is to ensure that we bring down the paramilitary organisations.
In conclusion, much has been achieved in Northern Ireland in recent years, but there remain things to be done. The loyalists must disarm and end their criminal activity and the dissident republicans must give up their illegal activities completely. The Executive must continue to meet to deal with everyday issues, and not just discuss border and constitutional issues—it must address the issues that people are worried about each and every day. Business must be allowed to flourish. Only then can the Province secure the lasting peace and prosperity that those who live there deserve.
5.33 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I thank the Minister for a comprehensive introduction to the debate. He will be glad to hear that as a result of some of his answers, I do not need to mention many of my worries and concerns. The hon. Member for East Antrim made the important point that it is not really a penalty to deduct funds from those engaged in organised crime. The penalty must be severe criminal prosecution. Otherwise we shall worry that they will do exactly the same again. As often as not they will be left with a surfeit—a surplus of ill-gotten gains that they should not have had in the first place—so it is no real deterrent.
Last April, in line with the wisdom of the powers that be, the Assets Recovery Agency, which pursued so-called organised crime in Northern Ireland—crime that has mainly been organised in terms of paramilitary strategy and bases—was wound up and subsumed into the Serious Organised Crime Agency. We had great concerns about that at the time, because the Assets Recovery Agency of Northern Ireland, co-operating with the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic of Ireland, had a high success rate and a high profile. Frankly, it struck terror into the paramilitary organisations. Our concerns at the time were that when the agency was subsumed into SOCA, what were big problems for the small community of Northern Ireland would become a relatively minor problem in the context of national problems and international organisations. I ask the Minister the question we asked at the time: is he satisfied that the resources of SOCA and the attention paid to the issues by SOCA, which took over the ARA, make it as effective, determined and focused as the ARA was? I am sorry to use all these mnemonics, but I get tongue-tied if I use the words, so it is easier. I get a feeling that there is—
5.36 pm
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
6.5 pm
On resuming
Mr. McGrady: Before I was so rudely interrupted by the Division bell, I was saying that we would like some reassurance that the obvious effectiveness of the Assets Recovery Agency has been translated into the new regime of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Following on from that is the question of whether the co-operation between the Criminal Assets Bureau and the public is as effective as it was. Previously, two local intelligence and security policing forces were working hand in hand in territories, and with people, they knew well. Has that situation benefited from and continued under the new arrangements?
The Minister is a strategic player. When I was in the Lobby, I was handed the answers to two parliamentary questions that provide me with the second part of my speech, but there are one or two points that I want to make now. The Minister mentioned paramilitaries, with great emphasis on dissidents, less emphasis on loyalism and loyalist paramilitaries and an even lesser emphasis on the other minor republican paramilitaries, including PIRA, if it can be considered minor in this context. What attention is SOCA giving to those organisations? The IMC report, which the Minister and other Committee members quoted, said “time is running out” for the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force to decommission their weapons.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a most bizarre public statement by the assistant chief constable, now retired, who, when asked if the PSNI knew about the sites of weapons in Northern Ireland, said, after much hesitation,
“Well, the short answer to that is yes—and then if the opportunity to arrest and prosecute is there, we will.”
They will, but they have not. There has been no raid on known—I emphasise the word “known”—arms stocks of loyalist paramilitaries. When that account is translated, it is can be seen that that weaponry is available for organised crime groups and, surely, it is imperative that it be taken out of circulation and not denied in the way that it is being denied for political considerations. Those weapons may have some standard forensic and DNA material on and in them that would pertain to existing inquiries and prosecutions. I fail to understand how SOCA, and people like that, are not incensed by this attitude. It has to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Those of us who live in the community—I am sure it is the same for all of us in our individual communities—know that Northern Ireland is a small community and even the city is made up of villages where everyone knows what is going on. I see the drug dealers on my street and the police know who they are, but they do not lift them. When I query this, I am told, “We are out to catch the big fish.” I say, “Grand, but while the big fish are swimming around beyond your reach, the smaller fish are feeding our children at the school gates with drugs, day in and day out.” I would rather see the minnows captured and put away, so that we at least cut off some tentacles of the system by which drugs are distributed. I should like to be sure that there will be change in that regard.
Dr. McCrea: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is no different from mine. Young people tell me that those who want drugs have absolutely no problem with availability. Certainly, many want action taken to deliver them from those who walk the streets and peddle drugs to them.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive intervention. I agree, and that situation is replicated by the experience of us all. We can all point out where we could get drugs in our communities if we really wanted to. Those people should be taken out now. That should not be predicated on some grand design to take out the big fish, because a lot of damage is being done in the meantime. The big fish might be caught later on, but if we cut off the outlets, even the minor ones, we will cut off the source of revenue and distribution.
The Minister gave me some statistics for 2008, but I remember that, in 2006-07, the number of people arrested on drugs charges was about 1,840. It would be interesting to know, two years later, how many of those people were actually charged. I notice that in the past year, when we apparently had enhanced success against drugs, only 77 people were charged. What has happened to the other 1,500 to 1,800?
Mrs. Iris Robinson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a major concern in our communities that the courts system is deliberately giving lenient sentences, or none at all, because the prisons are overcrowded? I got that information from a woman who had suffered the crime of rape but was told that the gentleman who had raped her would not get a sentence because there was no room in the jail.
Mr. McGrady: I am inclined to agree with the hon. Lady, but I do not have personal knowledge of whether there is a court policy on the matter or whether there are just circumstances that should be remedied to enable the courts to fulfil their obligation of proper imprisonment, where appropriate, for rape, drugs or whatever the crime may be.
Will the Minister be a wee bit more specific in naming paramilitary organisations, rather than generalising about republican paramilitaries and loyalist paramilitaries? Will he name the specific paramilitary and quasi-paramilitary organisations based on the crimes that they commit? That is essential for public knowledge and public co-operation in the pursuit of the perpetrators of those crimes.
Sammy Wilson: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Does he agree that, even in Government circles, some of those people are now recognised as community activists? That term is often a pseudo-description of the kind of people who would have fought in the paramilitary organisations.
Mr. McGrady: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who articulates the point that these people are almost put on a pedestal as the way forward in managing a community. If we want communities managed by force and coercion, at the point of a gun, yes, we can go to them. If we want communities managed with understanding, sympathy and help, stay away from them completely.
Certain community restorative justice groups were licensed by the Government, but the Government admitted that they did not fulfil the obligations of the legislation. That is wrong, and it sends the wrong message. I am sorry, but some of those things dictate the lower levels of crime, which are the crimes that affect the people whom I meet day to day. I do not aspire to be terribly involved in the higher echelons of paramilitary co-operative crime. I thank you, Mr. Atkinson, and the Committee for giving me time to speak.
6.15 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack: It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman, who is truly honourable. He has every reason to be proud of his record of bravery. I do not always agree with him, although I frequently do, but he has been a democratic participant in Northern Ireland politics for a long time.
Mr. McGrady: Too long.
Sir Patrick Cormack: No, not too long, because he has contributed his wisdom and good humour, and we are all very much in his debt. He made some powerful and admirable points, particularly in his closing remarks, with which I believe every member of the Committee would agree.
I ought to begin with an apology, Mr. Atkinson. I advised you, and I am grateful to you for calling me, that many weeks ago I agreed to propose the toast to a famous architect, Donald Insall—I am wearing my heritage hat—when he marks 50 years in practice tonight. I will have to leave earlier than I should have liked to go to fulfil that happy obligation. I am grateful to the Minister, to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury and to you, sir, for accepting that. I hope that the Committee will acquit me of any discourtesy.
Several Members referred to the Select Committee report. It is a good report, and I am exceptionally grateful to all the members of my Committee who played a constructive part in it: not only my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk but my hon. Friends the Members for East Londonderry and for East Antrim—my hon. Friend from Larne—who have just left the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and who will be replaced by the hon. Members for Strangford and for Upper Bann. We shall formally welcome the new members of the Select Committee tomorrow, but I like to thank the two aforesaid hon. Gentlemen for their contributions.
The report was unanimous. The hon. Member for Blaydon played an important part in our deliberations, as did all the members of the Select Committee. We published the report in Armagh at a press conference in July 2006. It was a significant event to publish it in that part of Northern Ireland at that time. Of course, the situation had improved significantly during the years before that. Publishing in that place at that time meant that we had to have extensive police protection, but we were able to make a gesture. The Select Committee was unanimous in drawing attention to the state of organised crime and in making some important recommendations to the Government.
Barely three weeks ago, the Select Committee was in Northern Ireland, and I had the great honour of speaking to a sombre gathering in Crossmaglen in support of the Quinn family. That was a moving occasion, but it could not have happened a relatively short time ago. The courage of the Quinn family and those who have come out to help them is remarkable indeed. Those of us who were there felt moved.
Today’s statement, to which the Minister has referred, is another significant milestone. I hope that the statement issued by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be followed by smooth progress towards the devolution of policing and justice. We all hope that. They have come to this agreement and have recognised a process, so it is important that none of us breathes down their necks as they work towards its achievement. The key word in the joint statement is “confidence”. All parts of the community—what used to be called both communities—need to have confidence that policing and justice should be devolved. They also need confidence in whoever the new Minister of Justice is whenever he or she takes office.
The fact that we are having this debate illustrates that all is not yet well and normal in Northern Ireland. Organised crime is of a different dimension from that experienced by the rest of the United Kingdom. The things that the Committee pointed out in its report are still highly relevant. For instance, we talked about the measures taken by the PSNI to strengthen its capacity to combat organised crime, but we stressed that the fight against organised crime is a shared responsibility between the PSNI, the other law enforcement agencies, the Northern Ireland Departments and the community at large—especially its political leaders. If the confidence upon which successful smooth devolution is to be built is to be shared, it is important that all in the community—particularly the political leaders from all parties—recognise the role that they have to play. I have great faith in my colleagues who sit for Northern Ireland constituencies in the House and I believe that they will give us that leadership. I hope that those who do not take their seats, but who were elected to the House, will give similar leadership in the perhaps difficult months ahead.
In the report, we also recognise that cross-border co-operation is vital to defeating organised crime. We welcome the establishment of more arrangements for joint operations between the law enforcement agencies in Northern Ireland and those in the Republic of Ireland. In successive visits, the Committee has met both Commissioners—the previous one and the present one—of An Garda Siochana. We have talked with those gentleman and had many public and private conversations with Sir Hugh Orde. He has been an exemplary Chief Constable and deserves all our thanks. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Foyle indicate his assent in relation to that. Sir Hugh has not had an easy road and when he appeared before the Committee just a fortnight ago, he again stressed that the threat from dissident republicans was greater than at any time in the past five or six years. That is a sobering thought.
The cross-border co-operation that we are currently looking into in our present inquiry is vital. It is very important that we build upon that because organised crime will not finally be defeated unless we do so. Other comments that we made in the report are still highly relevant, one of which has been referred to this afternoon. There is also a perception that those found guilty of organised-crime-related offences are not given sentences commensurate with the severity of their crimes. If that perception continues, it will have a damaging effect on confidence in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland. Although we recognise the complexities of the situation, we recommend that a connection with organised crime be made an aggravating factor in sentencing in Northern Ireland. When we conducted our more recent inquiry into the prison service in Northern Ireland, we discovered the scandal of all those who were in prison for minor offences—fine defaulters and so on—and recognised some of the apparently inadequate sentences given to those guilty of really serious crime. We were concerned about that. We remain concerned. Every member of this Northern Ireland Grand Committee should be concerned about that.
Two points were brought out earlier which I felt the Minister did not deal with adequately. I have a great respect for the Minister. The whole community in Northern Ireland owes him a tremendous amount because he has faced up to his responsibilities in a very even-handed way. He has been immensely industrious. He has earned the trust of people in all parts of the Province. Even when they do not absolutely agree with everything, they know that he is a man of honour and a man of his word. However, we need to make better progress on the fuel issue. It is not yet as good as it should be. The comments made in this report are still far too relevant. Like the leader of the SDLP, I am worried about the reduction in the number of officers in HMRC. Can we really be truly confident that they can tackle this crime in the way that it needs to be tackled if their numbers have been reduced?
While I am entirely satisfied that those who hold office in SOCA are men and women of great probity and diligence, the setting up of SOCA and the subsuming within it of the organised crime agency has had an effect on morale. I hope that it will not be lasting. There are still those who are apprehensive of the change. One must recognise these facts. It was not just in Northern Ireland that we met that degree of apprehension; we met it in the Republic too. Unless we can adequately deal with organised crime, building upon the real progress that has been made, whoever holds the justice portfolio in the Northern Ireland Assembly when these matters are finally devolved will have a much, much more difficult task.
We have an obligation to ensure that as and when devolution really comes, when the transition takes place, we have put sufficient resources into the tackling of organised crime to make it perfectly natural and normal for a province with a population of only 1.5 million people—the population of many English counties—to deal with this adequately. We all must recognise that. I recognise that acutely. The population of Northern Ireland is not all that different from the population of Staffordshire. But the amount of crime that has taken place in Northern Ireland over the last 30 years and the incredible burdens placed upon first the Royal Ulster Constabulary and then the PSNI mean that we are dealing with something unique within the United Kingdom.
So, of course I want to see the smooth transition to devolution. It has to be predicated upon the even more rigorous and successful tackling of the root causes of organised crime within Northern Ireland. I rest my case there. I apologise to the Committee once again. I thank all those who have played a part in this report and the subsequent reports. I hope that as we move towards devolution the Committee that I have the honour to chair will be able to play its constructive part in helping the people of Northern Ireland in general, and its elected representatives in particular, to achieve a smooth transition to proper devolution.
6.30 pm
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate today. It is true that we have made progress in tackling organised crime in Northern Ireland and as a former member of the Policing Board I want to commend the Minister, because I am aware of the work that he has done in chairing the Organised Crime Task Force. He has provided leadership, and I have heard that from the PSNI, HM Revenue and Customs, SOCA and others.
We are often quick to criticise Ministers when we do not think that they are doing things right, but on this occasion I want to put it on the record on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party that we acknowledge the very good work that the Minister is doing in Northern Ireland. We recognise the priority that he gives to this issue and that, as chair of the Organised Crime Task Force, he has really got to grips with it and provided the political leadership that was needed at a crucial time.
We have said consistently as a party that we believe that a key element of completing the transition from the civil unrest, violence and criminality that we have seen in the past is to deal with the ill-gotten gains of that criminality, and to ensure that it is dealt with. We welcome the fact that some of the leading players in paramilitary organisations have been subjected to the rigour of the law and are now beginning to be held to account for their involvement in organised crime.
There was a fear in the community that, if we moved on, devolution was established and stability began to be achieved, it would be convenient to draw a veil over all of that criminality. However, that has not been the case. From my own contacts with the Minister and the various agencies, I know that there are other individuals from across the spectrum of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland who are actively being pursued at the moment and whose assets are being seized. That work is welcome and we expect it to continue. No one in Northern Ireland should be above the law, when it comes to organised crime and the proceeds of that crime. Indeed, we look forward to the day when the money that was stolen from the Northern bank and obtained in other notorious criminal acts is recovered, in whatever form of asset it has now been translated into.
So we welcome the progress that has been made by the Organised Crime Task Force, led by the Minister. We had concerns when the Assets Recovery Agency was subsumed into the new agency, SOCA, and I know that the Minister was made aware of those concerns. Having met SOCA recently and having been briefed on its work in Northern Ireland, I am pleased to say that at least some of our fears and concerns have been allayed. However, we want to give SOCA a little more time to see how it performs.
At this stage, I want to pay tribute to Alan McQuillan, the former assistant Chief Constable in Northern Ireland, who led the ARA during the time that it existed. He did some very good work and provided some very able leadership in establishing the agency and driving it forward. He was fearless in his approach to dealing with the criminal elements of society and his talents are sadly missed at this time.
However, we will work with SOCA, as we will work with HMRC and, of course, the PSNI, all of whom are key stakeholders and partners in the drive to tackle organised crime in Northern Ireland.
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